If you’re a woman who asks for asylum at a U.S. border, you have a much better chance than a man of being freed quickly from an immigration detention center, especially if you’re traveling with small children.
But if you’re accompanied by a husband or adult sons, know this: They will likely not be as lucky.
As of July, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency had detained 1,300 Cuban migrants who reached the border, after the end of the open-door policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” Many have applied for asylum but Cuban males have generally been held in immigrant detention centers during the entire process, according to lawyers, activists and immigrants. The women, however, especially those with young children, are being released at a much quicker pace.
Officials along the border “process the men and women in different ways, and they are separating families,” said María Fundora, one of the founders of the Cuba Libre Foundation, which connects Cuban migrants with lawyers and humanitarian organizations.
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After passing an initial screening to determine whether there is a “credible fear” of reprisals or persecution if they are returned to Cuba, females are usually released from detention centers within weeks while the males stay there for months, even if the men and women tell the same story, Fundora said.
“The woman is released under parole, can get a work permit and a Social Security number while the men have to wait up to six months” in detention centers or are required to post high bonds, she added.
Former President Barack Obama eliminated the wet foot, dry foot policy in January, which had allowed any undocumented Cuban who set foot on U.S. territory to remain under special parole. President Donald Trump kept the halt in place, and now many of the new arrivals are applying for political asylum.
But for these Cubans, fear of punishment if they are returned to the island is not their only concern. Many say that they sold their homes in order to come up with the money for the trip, so they have nothing to go back to. Others say they were kidnapped or robbed as they trekked through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S. border.
Tania Espinosa and husband Yariel Díaz, from the western province of Pinar del Río, said they left Cuba on Nov. 13, but were kidnapped by gangs in Mexico seeking ransom and remained captive until early March. When they were finally released, the wet foot, dry foot policy in the U.S. had already changed.
“We lost everything,” Espinosa said. “They [kidnappers] demanded money from my relatives. I had to pay $8,000 for myself and my husband paid $5,000. My brother in Cuba had to sell his car to send us money.”
Upon arrival at the U.S. border, Espinosa was released and now lives in Hialeah. But her husband remains in detention and was recently transferred to another center in Washington state.
Espinosa said she and Díaz were arrested by State Security agents in Havana in 2016 when they tried to protect members of the dissident Ladies in White organization who were being attacked by government supporters. They knew nothing about the women’s group at the time — not surprising in a country where the government controls the media — and were arrested again later when they were caught trying to leave the island without official permission.
“They threatened us to identify the smuggler,” Espinosa said. “I am afraid to go back to the country. How many more problems are we going to have? Who is going to defend me in Cuba?”
Yamilé Oliver and her 12-year-old son were released just days after they arrived at the U.S. border in June. But another son, Iván Herbello, 18, remains detained and her 69-year-old mother did not pass the “credible fear” test — even though Oliver claimed that the whole family had problems in Cuba because her husband worked at the home of a U.S. diplomat.
Elizabel Pavón Bruzón and her two small children were also issued paroles, but not her husband, who remains detained in Pearsall, Texas. Pavón passed the “credible fear” test, saying her family was harassed because her husband belonged to an opposition political party.
“Our lives were terrible. They arrested him in front of my children, took him away, so that he could not attend the party’s meetings,” Pavón said. Her husband is now “very depressed,” she added.
Attorney José Cumbas, who has represented two dozen Cubans detained in immigration centers around the United States, said it’s not unusual for some members of a family to pass the initial screening while others do not.
“The asylum official does not know that the wife was interviewed and received [parole]. They are different officials and different stories, and maybe something happened to me that did not happen to my mother,” Cumbas said in a telephone interview from Texas.
The family separations do not only affect Cubans who apply for asylum. U.S. border officials were allowing Haitians to enter under a humanitarian parole, and allowing them to stay in the U.S. for up to three years to fight their asylum cases.
But after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency that oversees ICE, announced in September 2016 that it was resuming deportations to Haiti, the door was abruptly shut. Women and children are usually paroled and husbands and fathers are detained.
The more restrictive immigration policies that started during the late Obama administration only hardened under Trump.
A Trump executive order and a memo from then-DHS Secretary John Kelly have established that the authority to grant parole can only be exercised “on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the plain language of the statute, and in all circumstances only when an individual demonstrates urgent humanitarian reasons or a significant public benefit derived from such parole,” a DHS spokesman told el Nuevo Herald.
In May, more than 200 religious organizations and leaders called on ICE to end “the arbitrary, prolonged and indiscriminate detention” of asylum seekers.
“Denying parole or bond to families and individuals who are simply exercising their right to seek protection under international law and who in many cases have urgent humanitarian needs, including the right to family unity, is a gross injustice,” the group wrote in a letter to ICE.
Cumbas said the quick release of women, and especially women with children, may be because of the limited capacity of detention centers that hold families.
“They are releasing the women before because those centers have no space. They are more costly. They have more privacy and they have to have recreation for the children. That’s totally different” from the detention centers for males, Cumbas said.
DHS’ reply to questions by el Nuevo Herald suggest that may be true.
“As the Department of Homeland Security works to expand detention capacity, resources are prioritized based upon potential danger to the community and risk of flight,” the agency said in a statement. “If an individual alien is not detained, parole determinations are made in accordance with current regulations and long-standing policy.”
Activists and relatives have complained that ICE is setting exorbitant bonds for asylum seekers, especially males. The agency declined to comment on that issue.
Cumbas, the immigration lawyer, said that there’s nothing new in what the Cuban asylum seekers are experiencing. It’s just that for the first time they are being treated like any other undocumented immigrant.
But the change in immigration policy, along with the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, has directly impacted the fate of the Cuban detainees: The overwhelming sympathy once felt for Cuban arrivals has dropped, and most are now portrayed as economic migrants rather than political refugees.
“Winning asylum in the United States is very difficult. ... In the eyes of the world, the priority is Venezuela,” Cumbas said. “But Cuba is not like Venezuela. The situation in Cuba has improved.”
Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres